I’m slightly ashamed to admit it but I have never been to a World Cup tournament. As the Brand Ambassador of NairaBet, I’m getting the opportunity to fulfil a lifelong dream. I’m flying to Brazil this morning, courtesy of NairaBet for Super Eagles’ group games in Curitiba against Iran, in Cuiba against Bosnia-Herzegovina and against Argentina in Porto Alegre.
The closest I came to attending a World Cup was at France 1998. I was on en route to England during the Super Eagles versus Denmark second-round game. Like most Nigerians, I had assumed Nigeria would overcome Denmark to face Brazil in the quarterfinals. There was a collective national underestimation of the Danes, surprise 1992 European champions and tricky, dangerous opponents. Instead, my friends and I were all looking forward to attending the much anticipated, 1996 Olympics grudge re-match against Brazil. In what in hindsight was a significant error, we planned to drive to France to watch the quarterfinals. The rest, as they say, is history. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch that Nigeria vs Denmark game, much too painful.
France 1998 remains for me the worst performance of the Super Eagles squad at any World Cup, more dismal than at South Africa 2010. The fact that the 1998 squad, unlike the 2014 variety, was packed with established stars, Europe-based players ostensibly on top of their game, made it worse. After the superlative performances of the Super Eagles at USA’94 and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, expectations of the 1998 squad were so much higher. We even had the luxury of dropping a fully fit, in-form Jonathan Akpoborie – a costly error that came back to haunt us. I hope there are no parallels with the Ikechukwu Uche situation in 2014. The Super Eagles camp was filled with dissent and different factions with players exhibiting the most remarkable levels of greed over match bonuses and rampant indiscipline.
By the time this column goes to print, Brazil would have either beaten Croatia in the opening game of the World Cup, or the Brazilian people would have said thanks but no thanks to Sepp Blather and FIFA. Like no other World Cup in history, the success of Brazil 2014 rests on how well the home team perform. There is such a level of resentment among the locals to the World Cup that anything less than the Selecao getting to the semi-finals could spell mass fan apathy towards the tournament.
Even though Stephen Keshi and the Super Eagles find themselves in the awkward Group F, the task ahead of them is relatively simple – treat each game as a final. A lot of football analysts have referred to our second match in Cuiba against Bosnia, as the crunch game in the group. I disagree to a certain extent. The Bosnia game is crucial, no doubt, but our most important game is the first one against Iran in Curitiba on Monday. This is the classic example of ‘take each game as it comes’. Each match must be taken as a mini final, as there is no margin for error. We must beware of the ghost of France 98, where even the players were guilty of looking beyond Denmark to Brazil. It’s all about Iran, otherwise known as Team Melli. I found out during the week, to my surprise, that only Australia, Japan, Korea and Cameroon are ranked below Nigeria by FIFA. Even the perceived underdogs of our group, Iran, are ranked 43rd to ahead of Nigeria’s 44th position. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t pay too much attention to FIFA’s idiosyncratic rankings.
Iran are coming into the World Cup in patchy form, with a squad battling with controversial omissions from the final 23. There are also rumours about insufficient funding from their football authorities, and stories that players have been ordered not to exchange shirts with opponents after games! Ironically, Iran see Nigeria as the weakest link in the group and Carlos Quieroz and his boys are going to throw everything at the Super Eagles. This might just work in our favour as Team Melli under Quieroz usually prefer a defensive 4-2-3-1 formation, which might transmute to a more offensive 4-3-3, if the Iranians feel they can take the points off us.
Argentina play Bosnia on Sunday, that game in itself will be instructive and show Keshi the scale of the task ahead. But our attention in the short term must be fixed solely and unequivocally on Iran.
Our indifferent run of results in our friendly matches should have eliminated any form of potential complacency. I expect the Super Eagles to be fully focused on the task at hand when they file out at the Arena da Baixada on Monday, 4pm local time (8pm in Nigeria). The three points on offer are absolutely essential.